Monday, September 17, 2012

Paul Kincaid and Last Year's Best

Receiving plenty of attention on the web recently is science fiction critic Paul Kincaid's review of three science fiction anthologies purporting to offer round-ups of the year's best (the annuals by Gardner Dozois and Richard Horton, and the Nebula Awards Showcase 2012) in the Los Angeles Review of Books in early September.

Unfortunately, Kincaid reports the experience as underwhelming. Reading the assembled stories it seemed to him that for the most part "the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them," rather than an engagement with the world. And where that repetition is concerned, we appear to have passed the point at which we have "rubbed away anything that was bright and new." The result is that we increasingly get science fiction about science fiction, and especially science fiction as it used to be, "older . . . familiar futures," (as in Elizabeth Bear's update of '40s-style robotics tales like "Dolly,") or science fiction that looks rather more like fantasy ("more and more of the stories shortlisted for the Nebula Awards . . . either overtly fantasy or else indistinguishable from fantasy for all practical purposes), often because of their presentation of futures which are "magical or incomprehensible" (as in Gavin J. Grant's "Widows in the World"). In either case, the results bespeak the writers' loss of all "real conviction about what they are doing." This seems to him a matter of a loss of "confidence in the future," or at least, the future's comprehensibility.

Just as the stuff of the stories is familiar, so is the stuff of Kincaid's commentary - in part because there is much truth in what he says. Indeed, I have written so much about all this myself that saying anything more about most of his points seems to me superfluous. The exception is his note about incomprehensibility, his remark that
somewhere amidst the ruins of cyberpunk in the 1980s, we began to feel that the present was changing too rapidly for us to keep up with. And if we didn’t understand the present, what hope did we have for the future?
I find that line of thought dubious. As those of you familiar with this blog have likely noted by this point, I (like Robert Gordon, and Bob Seidensticker, and Ha-Joon Chang, and Michael Lind) have been unimpressed by the claims that we live in some era of unprecedentedly deep and rapid change, the "information age" thus far a modest tweaking of the industrial age. What actually seems to me most striking when I reflect on recent decades is how little political, economic and technological change actually occurred, certainly in comparison with the expectations of an earlier and supposedly more timid generation of futurologists and science fiction writers. (Remember world government? The twenty-four hour work week? Space manufacturing? Contrary to many an expectation, the nation-state and the business corporation remain the dominant political and economic actors, people still devote the great majority of their alert, waking hours to work rather than leisure, and we remain very much Earthbound as a species.) In many ways it seems as if we are standing still, and that is what makes problems like climate change seem so frightening - the failure of needed new technologies and public policies to emerge at anything like the speed, or on the scale, necessary for effectively dealing with them. The conscientious can only wish that the reality matched the hype in this respect.

This raises an obvious question: if change is not so rapid as many suggest, then why the continued attachment to the theme? Part of it may simply be the sheer power of the hype, to which science fiction has been especially subject. That fact by itself means that even those who don't share the expectation can still find interest in it - like Charles Stross, who has expressed considerable skepticism about the idea, but continues to write in this vein, as in his latest collaboration with Cory Doctorow, The Rapture of the Nerds (a sample from which you can check out here), the ironic title of which suggests much about the nature of the work.

However, the insistence on the world's incomprehensibility can have yet another function, namely that of dodge. To throw up one's hands in confusion can be an understandable response to their genuinely intimidating largeness, but it can also be a convenient way of avoiding the serious social and ethical and political questions raised by our problems (like our ecological crisis). There certainly seems an incentive to take that route when so many of the obvious responses to such problems - substantive critique of the prevailing orthodoxies, efforts to envision really meaningful alternatives, despair in the absence of such - are regarded as naive, disreputable or simply risky for the career-minded, encouraging the ever-present temptation to self-censor. Postmodernism has always concealed a significant amount of evasion behind its smugly enunciated epistemological doubts, and postmodern science fiction has not been an exception to the pattern. Indeed, the lack of conviction Kincaid finds in the writing is best understood as a parallel to that lack of conviction pervading our broader cultural and political life.

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